Sometimes progress is measured in small degrees. Sometimes quantity becomes quality, after a fashion. Today's version of guilt by association is a paler shade of what happened 60 years ago.
Sixty years ago, as McCarthyism spread like wildfire throughout the country, ordinary people reacted to fear, anger, and bigotry. The fear was not feigned. The common perception was that international communism was a monolithic conspiracy conducted from the depths of the Kremlin. As Soviet armies marched through Eastern Europe, it was not hard to imagine a completely unified plot to enslave the world. We had just defeated a dictator who had become transparent in that goal.
Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy led the charge with accusations of 20 years of treason. He waved a list of unidentified traitors within US agencies. When he was questioned, he challenged the patriotism of those who dared to stand against him.
The most common mocking conservative rejoinder to any protest against McCarthy's tactics was a reference to those who would loudly proclaim their fear of speaking out. Ha-ha-ha.
Some prominent folks lost their jobs, celebrities, those whose livelihood depended on public acceptance. The fear was most commonly felt, not among those most prominent. It was local, indigenous leaders, teachers, clergy, business owners, those vulnerable to the opinions of their neighbors. Lists were circulated in those days of people suspected of holding subversive ideas. Those ideas often included liberalism, racial integration, or any social policy that included minimum wage, worker safety, or consumer protection. Even the most mild objection could be conflated with Stalinist dictatorship.
I was not a direct witness, being too young at the time to comprehend. But in later years I discovered the small town heroism of a village preacher in a little upstate Methodist parish. He watched in growing dismay as intolerance and bigotry increasingly took on the false mantle of "Americanism." He took on his own profile in courage, eventually speaking out from the pulpit against a demagogic threat to democracy. He cautioned against what he saw as an easy, lazy, rebuke to decency itself.
He was denounced, of course. Methodist clergy are appointed by Bishops and protests were filed by several local parishioners. He kept his job for a few years, eventually transferred to another church.
I was thinking of those harsh times as I read about attacks on the patriotism of an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Huma Abedin had previously been known as the burdened new wife of former Representative Anthony Weiner, who resigned from Congress amid a sex scandal. That she was a Muslim was incidental, hardly mentioned in the tabloids. Also not mentioned often was that her wayward husband is Jewish.
But earlier this month, Representative Michele Bachmann along with a few colleagues, began sending letters to security and intelligence officials warning of infiltration into the highest levels of government by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is an international organization which, while not terrorist in itself, has members with connections to other organizations which are. Bachmann and her associates specifically targeted Huma Abedin. It seems that members of her family have had ties with other individuals who have had ties with those connected with the Muslim Brotherhood, some of whose members have ties to terrorist groups. One family member was her father, who had a working friendship with a man who helped found an organization which eventually developed ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. He died decades ago, when she was a teenager. The two degrees away from subversive relationship happened before she was born.
Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, America's first Muslim Congressional Representative, criticized the attack on Secretary Clinton's aide. "Our country has gone through a McCarthy period. We cannot allow America to go back to another one." He characterized the tenuous nature of this instance of guilt by association. "It's like a bizarre game of six degrees of separation. She mentions that her father, who has been dead for two decades, knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who was connected to the Muslim brotherhood in some unspecified way!"
Bachmann's response to Ellison's sharp critique is to challenge his patriotism. Ellison, says Bachmann, "has a long record of being associated with the Muslim Brotherhood."
Bachmann's charges have been rebuked by several nationally known Republicans. Among them are Senator John McCain and Majority Leader in the House John Boehner. It is not yet known how they are tied to the international Islamic conspiracy.
Bachmann's target, Huma Abedin, is now under local police and federal security protection. There has been at least one credible threat of violence against her.
It all does seem like a smaller replay of the hearings of almost six decades ago. An aide to Senator Joe McCarthy was caught pressuring the US Army to provide some advantages to an enlisted friend. When Army brass refused, McCarthy accused top officials of disloyalty.
An incriminating photograph was introduced by McCarthy's aide, but the photo was shown by Congressional counsel Joseph Welch to have been doctored. He produced the undoctored, non-incriminating, photo. Welch was on leave from a Boston law firm and McCarthy developed an abiding dislike for him.
A letter to Senator McCarthy from J. Edgar Hoover was also incriminating. But, when Joe Welch asked the FBI for comment, J. Edgar Hoover sent an agent to testify that the letter was a forgery.
Finally, Senator McCarthy challenged the patriotism of a junior lawyer on the staff of the Boston firm of Joseph Welch. Welch, in a few seconds of television time, in a gentle tone, began the utter destruction of the political career of Senator Joe McCarthy. "Senator, you've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
The response of Welch is also history's answer to today's five Congressional Representatives who, on wafer thin, double and triple blind association, despite enough degree of separation to dispel the faintest whiff of suspicion, join in attacking the loyalty of one individual for having the wrong religion.
Have they no sense of decency?
It brings back impressions of an earlier era, an era I was too young at the time to appreciate. It brings me to a renewal of respect for that young preacher from six decades ago in a small rural church.
Only years later did I become aware of the lonely courage of that preacher, my father. He has been dead for many years. I am now many years older than he was then. I admire him still.
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